In a turbulent sea of terrifying pandemic-election news, the Zoom Dick Incident on Monday, October 19, was a soothing Margaritaville-like oasis.
With something between schadenfreude and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God humility, many folks celebrated the almost objectively funny news that a Very Serious Man (judiciary Svengali Jeffrey Toobin) had allegedly, inadvertently exposed himself during a work meeting at a Very Serious Publication (The New Yorker, where Toobin is now on suspension). Thanks to a cheeky headline from Vice, who broke the story, the words “Zoom Dick” trended on Twitter, interrupting a typically bonkers late-October 2020 news day. What followed, of course, was a cavalcade of countless cathartic jokes, the thinking person’s Covfefe.
By the end of the day, some prankster had even updated Wikipedia’s New Yorker entry.
— Ken Klippenstein (@kenklippenstein) October 19, 2020
The reason for all the jokes, however, rather than earnest consternation, was that the story initially had an element of mystery. How, exactly, had Toobin exposed himself? Who at the magazine was present at the time? Could there possibly be an innocent explanation? Was his home excessively hot on the day he hit the laundry crisis point, perhaps, causing him to go Porky Pig-style while attending a work meeting?
As it turned out, the answer is no. Later in the day, Vice reporter Laura Wagner confirmed that the author and CNN correspondent was, indeed, allegedly masturbating.
— Laura Wagner (@laurawags) October 19, 2020
Although the jokes continued after the late-afternoon update, they were joined by anger and incredulity. If Toobin truly was glimpsed masturbating by multiple colleagues during a Zoom meeting, how was he not yet officially fired? Inadvertent or, shudder, intentional, it’s impossible to continue a working relationship with someone who has subjected his coworkers to on-camera onanism.
Years ago, when Louis CK’s defenders rose up en masse to argue that their favorite masturbating comedian had done nothing wrong, the easiest rebuttal was: Imagine someone at a regular 9-to-5 job pleasuring himself in front of colleagues by the water cooler. Although I’m personally inclined to give Toobin the benefit of the doubt that he was merely caught masturbating, and not “doing a Louis CK,” Toobin’s case is the hypothetical in real life. And he should face the consequences that go with that.
But just as Louis CK has his prominent defenders, so too does Toobin. Some, like feminist author Jill Filipovic, merely allowed for the off-chance of an improbable innocent explanation before the other shoe dropped. Several other writers, however, spoke up afterward. Although it’s not exactly as broad a coalition as some on Twitter are making it out to be, a faction of people are actually out here trying to both-sides workplace masturbation.
Not sure someone getting caught doing something almost everyone does should be a national story.
— German Lopez (@germanrlopez) October 19, 2020
Ah yes, because obviously the problem in this instance is that Toobin did the deed at all, not that he did so on camera in front of his colleagues during a meeting. It’s a national news story that Toobin is a sexual being, not that he acted in that capacity at a totally inappropriate time.
When Occam's Razor suggests someone humiliated himself through a combo of technological error, pandemic circumstances, bad judgment, & bad luck, it seems like we should react w/ empathy, politeness, & forgiveness, as we would want to be treated, rather than punitive mockery
— Conor Friedersdorf (@conor64) October 19, 2020
The words “bad judgment” are doing just a Mr. Universe level of heavy lifting here. It was really, really, extremely bad judgment. People are fired, made fun of, and arrested for this kind of bad judgment every day. Occam’s Razor, the theory that the simplest explanation is often the most likely one, points to the author of this tweet merely wanting the same courtesy extended were he ever caught in a similar moment of bad judgment, a scenario that the tweet suggests is not unlikely.
Re: Toobin, unless something new comes to light, I feel like “now bosses will be emboldened to crack down on private things you do on the clock” is the more threatening precedent here than “now people will think it’s fine to jerk off at work”
— Natalie Shure (@nataliesurely) October 20, 2020
We can certainly cross the private-things crackdown bridge if and when we come to it, but for now this incident seems only to be reiterating the classic, unspoken precedent of never whipping your dick out during office hours in front of those who have to work with you.
None of us has fully adjusted to the fact that our homes have now become, in the pandemic, places of business. We are now able to wear things (sweatpants) and do things (vaping) that previously seemed impossible during the course of a work day. But as dramatic a shift as it has been, many of the old rules still apply; for instance, your coworkers shouldn’t be made to even think of you in the state Toobin was caught in, let alone bear witness to it.
I can’t believe I have to say this, but it is never okay to masturbate during a work meeting.